Monastic life and life experience

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In the Dharmapada, there are several references to “bad monks.” Those exact words are not used, but the sutras refer to those who wear robes and yet do not tame their mind, or who commit wrong actions.

Many who wear the saffron robe
Have evil traits and lack restraint.
By their evil deeds are these wicked people
Reborn in hell.

(From the translation by Gil Fronsdal, 2005, p. 75)

This comes as no surprise to anyone who knows the history of any religion that has ever existed. Clergy, priests, monks and nuns are human beings. Perhaps they all set out on a spiritual path with intentions to do good, but being human, some of them fail.

This idea floated through my mind during meditation one morning recently, right after a thought about reading sutras and trying to learn from them. The theme I was allowing to expand was understanding, or attainment. A teacher once made a nice distinction for me about “knowing” vs. really understanding something: He said I might know a lot about bipolar disorder if I have read a bunch of articles and books about it, but I could never understand what it is like to be a person who lives with that disorder unless I was, in fact, one of those people.

This was a great teaching for me, because I have often appreciated how I can’t really understand what it is like to be this or that person (an African American, a soldier, a gifted musician, a drug addict). So the teacher made his point very skillfully, for me at least, when he said, “That is the difference between knowledge and experience.”

One day, I might experience emptiness, in the sense meant by the Buddhist teachings. One day, I might experience the oneness of the entire universe. But until then, I’m only understanding, or trying to, with my mind.

Back to the monks: They would not need to be evil to be wrong — or simply mistaken. There are 84,000 sutras, we are told. Not a one of them was written down by Shakyamuni Buddha. We can easily discern certain themes and ideas that recur again and again in hundreds of these sutras; we might also encounter some ideas that confuse us or seem contradictory.

I like to remember that humans make mistakes, and all the clerics and monastics were human. So should I torture myself over some discrepancy, some contradiction? Or should I rely on what I, myself, experience?

Breathe.

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